Honoring A Legacy, Meeting A Legend And A Pocket Full Of Dirt: The Chronicle Staff's 2015 Memorable Moments

Dec 30, 2015 - 4:17 AM

With a horse show happening every weekend, and sometimes multiple major events taking place in locations around the country on the same day, the Chronicle reporters spend countless weekends on the road.

But regardless of how many horses we see winning championships and cantering down centerline, a few special moments always leave a lasting impression long after the story is written and the results are old news. As we head into the new year, here are a few of our favorite moments from 2015…

Mollie Bailey’s Favorite Moment: Making A Connection

In 2014 I was lucky enough to write one of my favorite stories I’ve worked on since I’ve been at the Chronicle. When Lawson Mayfield died suddenly a few weeks before the end of her junior career, her family responded with incredible generosity, remembering their daughter by gifting Lawson’s horses to deserving young riders who exhibited the same work ethic, kindness and love of sport that Lawson did. 

Everyone I talked to for the story was so incredibly open about an emotional and sensitive subject. I spent hours on the phone with Lawson’s friends, mother and trainers, with tears shed on both sides of the line. It was such an honor that those closest to this incredible young woman trusted me with her story about the legacy they carried on in her honor, and I just regretted that I hadn’t been able to meet either Lawson nor those closest to her.

This October I was photographing an amateur-owner stakes class at the Washington International Horse Show when a familiar-looking roan trotted into the ring. It was Budweis’czar, one of Lawson’s horses, who had been gifted to rider Alexis Mayfield.

Mayfield laid down the trip of her lifetime, boosting her to the top of the class and the reserve title in the division, her biggest win yet. You can read more about it in the story I did at Washington—”The Biggest Smile At The Horse Show.” Afterward I spent an hour with Alexis, her twin sister Alyssia and their trainer Andrea Duffy and their horses Budweis’czar and Tommy. Sitting on tack trunks in the makeshift stabling on F Street in downtown D.C., we gabbed about Alexis’ win, the road to Washington, foxhunting, Lawson and life in general.

There are a handful of people I feel like I’ve truly connected with through phone interviews while at the Chronicle, and it was extra special to meet these three when they were having one of the best days of their year. 

Jenn Calder’s Favorite Moment: Being There For History

I write mostly profiles and features on luminaries in our sports for COTH and Untacked. These in-depth interviews generally take place away from the show ring and bright lights and, as such, I am not present for the big wins. I get the joy of retelling these accomplishments in the larger context of a person’s life. The process is inspiring, enlightening and replete with memorable moments but this year my reflection is a bit different.

Like all at our magazine, I adore horses whether in the saddle or watching them jump and piaffe. And I truly love to watch them run.

COTH stopped covering flat racing a while ago but this year the accomplishments of a muscular bay with a barely visible star and abbreviated tail captivated not only those passionate about horse sports but also an entire nation.

I was privileged not only to be at the Kentucky Derby where the quest (once again) started but also at Belmont Park where it ended in a euphoric, jubilant spectacle befitting the shattering of a 37-year drought.

I walked through the brick tunnel next to American Pharoah as he coolly sauntered from the paddock to the track, unbothered by the histrionics surrounding him or the reverberations from the crowd of over 90,000. As he emerged into the sunshine from the shadowy underpass their collective roar exploded like a continuous detonation, drowning out Frank Sinatra’s New York, New York.

From my spot on the rail near the finish line, I watched as he tore into history taking the lead from the gate and never ceding it. After he crossed the wire, I stood on the track and scooped up a bit of dirt, dumping it in my husband’s suit pocket as American Pharoah jogged back under a beaming Victor Espinoza (who generously rode him the length of the jubilant grandstand instead of directly heading to the winner’s circle).

Racing has its critics, some well-founded, but what made American Pharoah so easy to root for, beyond the historical component, was this horse loved to run.

He loved it. Watch him. His 25-foot effortless stride, longer than Secretariat’s, gliding over the ground with a fluid grace. His ears joyfully pricked forward next to competitors who had theirs pinned back. He seemed to be running towards something unseen, unknown. I guess he was. He was running towards a legacy, redemption for the Sport of Kings and he carried us along with him.

He made you feel good about racing again following years—almost 40—of disappointment which seemed to prove the naysayers correct. Those who theorized winning the Triple Crown could no longer be done. That Thoroughbreds are now bred for speed, not distance and are fragile, delicate creatures, mere ghosts of those durable

athletes who came before. That three races in five weeks is too grueling when the prevailing trend is to let racehorses rest months between contests.

But American Pharoah did it.

In most sports someone goes home disappointed, a loser, but not this race. Even those who watched the new Triple Crown winner’s bobbed tail cross the wire in front of them, those jockeys—and their connections in the stands—won. Racing won.

That day I witnessed, arguably, one the greatest moments in horse sports—hell, any sport.

This year, my most memorable moment was being present for the big win. 

Catie Staszak’s Favorite Moment: Meeting A Legend

I owe a lot to Champ Hough. He doesn’t know it, but that includes my job at the Chronicle.

In June, I was freelancing for the magazine when I was assigned my first “Living Legends” story. The subject was Charles Gordon “Champ” Hough, Jr., team bronze medalist in three-day eventing at the 1952 Helsinki Olympics and father of both show jumping Olympian Lauren Hough and top show hunter rider Cindy Brooks.

Champ, who in 1952 was just 18 years old and the youngest equestrian Olympian competing in the Games, is now 81 and resides in South Florida. Champ joined me at his former wife Linda Hough’s home in Wellington (the two remain close friends), and the three of us got to chatting and storytelling for several hours. 

I quickly learned that Champ was one of the most remarkable people I had ever met. When he tried out for the Olympic Team, he had never ridden dressage in his life. He broke and trained his Olympic mount, Cassivellannus, himself. After the Games, he never evented again. Instead, he earned himself—and his best horse Sutton Place—a spot in the National Show Hunter Hall of Fame.

Champ made a career out of switching careers. He spent a period of time breeding Thoroughbred race horses and World Champion Black Angus cows; appraising yearlings for Fasig-Tipton; teaching judges’ clinics for the American Horse Shows Association (AHSA), now the United States Equestrian Federation (USEF); and even acting, as he held a supporting role in the 1960 Academy Award-winning film, “The Horse With the Flying Tail.”

Piecing together a chronological timeline of Champ’s life was like trying to put together a 1,000-piece jigsaw puzzle. But I couldn’t stop listening to the stories. When the statement “I should probably tell you about the time I rode horses for [President] Ronald Reagan,” is an afterthought, you know you have led a fulfilling life!

Champ truly is a legend, and I was honored to share his story. The icing on the cake came when the piece made the cover of the Chronicle’s Aug. 17 issue. It was my first ever cover story.

I enjoyed working on the story so much that I decided in my mind that if I were to get the opportunity, I would want to work for the Chronicle on a full-time basis. I wanted to share more stories like Champ’s. Four months later, I can proudly say that I am a full-time member of the editorial staff.

Thank you, Champ!

Lindsay Berreth’s Favorite Moment: Medals And Pride 

This year I headed to my first ever championship as a member of the media when I covered the Pan American Games in Toronto with my co-worker Lisa Slade.

I was a little nervous, having heard tales of chaos and stress at multi-discipline championships from other more seasoned staffers. But I’d also heard them rave about how amazing it was to see Valegro dance to music or feel the tension so thick in the air you could cut it with a knife as the final horse cleared the final show jump in eventing.

In the end, the experience was much more the latter. Sure, Lisa and I had to sneak in PB&Js every day for lunch because the few food vendors were overwhelmed and yes, there were some stressful days worrying about getting our coverage up even though we were wet/hot/cold/hungry/tired, but to me it was worth it to experience the U.S. team on the podium multiple times, and to be able to witness equestrian sport on a global scale.

I wish I’d had time to talk to every rider from another country and learn their story, but reporting on the medal contenders was first priority, leaving little time for much else. I did get to talk to a few South American riders across all three disciplines over those two weeks though, and learning the stories of what they go through to be able to compete at the Pan Ams, which for many is the pinnacle of their career, and how excited they were to bring attention to equestrian sport in their countries was really amazing. They took their jobs as ambassadors of the sport very seriously and with a great amount of pride.

There really were so many memorable moments, it’s hard to choose! McLain Ward riding the spicy Rothchild to his first individual championship medal, Brazil’s Ruy Fonseca so close to an individual gold before dropping the final rail in the eventing to give Marilyn Little the gold, the impressive Brazilians across all disciplines, Steffen Peters’ elation aboard Legolas in the dressage…Some say the Pan Ams aren’t as prestigious as other championships, but to me and the many riders who were privileged to be there, those medals and experiences mean so much.

Kimberly Loushin’s Favorite Moment: A Whisper To Flexi

It’d be easy to say that going to the FEI World Cup Finals in Las Vegas was my favorite trip this year. After all, this was the first time I’d seen many of these international riders, particularly from Europe, in person. While there were plenty of wonderful moments in the ring, my favorite moment comes from “backstage” where, as a journalist, I’m lucky to have access to. 

It was right before the last two rounds of the Longines FEI World Cup Show Jumping Final and Rich Fellers and Flexible were tied with Steve Guerdat and Albfueren’s Paille. Steve had just walked into the ring and Rich and “Flexi” made their way down the ramp to the small holding area to wait their turn.

It was a routine I knew well at this point—having spent the entirety of the show jumping final behind the scenes—Rich gets off, adjusts his saddle and gives the Irish Sport Horse stallion a pat before getting back on. Others walked around, using that time to be sure their horse was responsive off the leg, but Rich’s routine was always the same.

If I had been watching the screen playing Steve Guerdat’s clear round I would have missed it. As Rich gave Flexi his final pat before remounting, he spoke quietly, “OK, Flexi, you know what to do.”

Ultimately the pair went on to have two rails in the next round, and as I walked up to Rich afterwards I wasn’t really sure what I was going to get from him—after all, their chances at a second title had fallen with those rails.

But Rich has been doing this for a long time, and he knows how special it is to have Flexible still competing at 19, so his answer shouldn’t have surprised me. “I felt like I was happy with the way I rode and was really super happy with the way he jumped. Just having him competing at this level in the sport this late in his career, every round is a blessing.”

Sara Lieser’s Favorite Moment: Blueberry’s Perfection

My co-workers who’ve known me the longest like to tease me about my penchant for tearing up while watching dressage. I may never live down the time I bawled my eyes out while watching Steffen Peters ride the Grand Prix Special aboard Floriano at the 2006 FEI World Equestrian Games in Aachen. But their partnership was just so moving!

Anyway, as I’ve worked here longer and gotten spoiled by seeing the best of the best perform on a regular basis, the tears flow a bit less freely.

But this spring the waterworks were once again in evidence as I watched Charlotte Dujardin ride Valegro in her winning freestyle at the Reem Acra FEI World Cup in Las Vegas.

I wasn’t even working, which meant I was free to focus on watching. I’d gone to Las Vegas to celebrate the 40th birthday of a dear friend who also happens to be a serious dressage rider, and so of course we’d chosen a horsey holiday to mark the occasion. 

This was the fourth time I’ve seen Charlotte and “Blueberry” in action (did I mention I’m spoiled?), but it was by far the best.

There was not one moment of their freestyle that I thought could’ve been better. That horse excels at his job, and he knows it and loves to perform. It was the epitome of what Grand Prix dressage should be: spectacular movements and seamless transitions performed with harmony and joy. I’m so glad I was there in person to see it.

Lisa Slade’s Favorite Moment: A Collision Of Worlds

We knew that Pope Francis was going to roll through Central Park during the Rolex Central Park Horse Show. As a person who’s not religious at all, I was more worried about the logistical issues involved with a horse show just feet away from an event requiring such major security than I was excited about his arrival. And I was pretty sure I wouldn’t get to see him.  

That day, the Secret Service agents cleared the part of the park where the horse show was being held. All weekend, there had been people and more people wandering around Central Park, so many people that there wasn’t always room to walk on the sidewalks, and then it went to being eerily empty. As I walked from the ring to the stabling area, getting frisked by a Secret Service agent on the way, I was the only non-security person around. 

But the emptiness and silence on “our” side of the park was in direct contrast to the hordes of people on the other side of the barriers, and I could see—and hear!—them all when I got to the stabling area, which had a fortuitous overlook onto the road where the pope would be driving. 

When the popemobile drove through, Chronicle art director Josh Walker was up on the front end loader of a tractor with several other photographers, and he captured an amazing picture of Charlotte Dujardin with the pope in the background. Grooms and riders were standing on the top of the steward’s trailer. Everyone in the stabling area crammed together and went silent as the massive crowd in front screamed. I just stared for a glimpse of him. 

It was a strangely moving moment, a weird example of the places horses can take you. 

This is part of the Chronicle’s look back at 2015:

Our top 10 most-read stories on www.coth.com for the year

The 10 most popular Behind Barn Doors articles in 2015 

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